Friday Guest Blog: Gabrielle Harbowy – Successful Slushing

I love the slush pile.

There. I’ve said it.

I know that we editors are supposed to hate looking at submissions, solicited or otherwise. That’s why we call them “slush” in the first place, right? We’re supposed to be bored and jaded. We’re supposed to lament that we’ve seen it all—twice; that nothing out there is new, or eye-catching, or even grammatically correct. It’s no great feat to save up our slush horror stories so that we can terrify you, writers, at conventions and at parties, because every manuscript is a horror story and a lesson in what not to do.

That’s what you’re expecting me to say. That’s the story writers tell each other ‘round the campfire (or, as it were, ‘round the hotel bar). Everyone knows that editors set out every morning to crush ten writers’ dreams before lunch. We have a quota, right?

But the truth is, I enjoy the submissions desk. Why? For the same reason I enjoy reading: I love to fall in love with books. I want each and every manuscript that crosses my desk to be something that hooks me, transports me, and excites me.

More editors, agents, and publishers share my perspective than writers realize. We wouldn’t be actively seeking submissions if we didn’t want to find those same fantastic stories that we love as readers—the ones that keep us up all night turning pages; the ones we want to make all our friends read. I enter each manuscript with that optimism, and with hope that I’m opening a gateway to something magical.

Your job when you send off a query, friend writer, is not to convince me to be optimistic. It’s to seize on that optimism I already have and reward it. You can do this by showing me that you respect me, that you respect the process, and that you respect yourself.

It takes very little effort, if you’ve found “Dragon Moon Press,” to determine that it’s a publisher, not an agency, so please tell us that you’re submitting your manuscript “for consideration,” not “for representation.” No one’s going to reject you for writing “Dear Editor,” but it takes very little effort, if you’ve found my name, to determine that I’m a Ms. and not a Mr. Getting these little things wrong shows a lack of seriousness. Getting them right shows professionalism and respect.

If you’ve gone to the trouble of finding the submissions address, you’ve probably also found the submissions guidelines. You can respect the process by reading and following them. These guidelines exist so that we can receive the manuscripts that are most likely to fit our needs, in the formats and with all the essential pieces needed to help us make our decisions. Many of the queries I reject have been for genres my boss doesn’t publish, or a manuscript that’s not finished yet, or a word count that’s off by a mile, or have been missing crucial elements, or otherwise haven’t followed directions. I ask for ten sample pages because I need to see the writing, not just the plot—if you don’t send along those pages, you’ve deprived me of a chance to be wowed by them. If I say “no attachments,” it’s because I won’t open them. Yours won’t be an exception. If an agent’s guidelines ask for a synopsis, it’s because they’ll have to turn around and pitch to editors with one. It’s what they need in order to make their decision.

Accept that the process takes time, and if by chance your manuscript isn’t quite a fit for a particular market, accept that with grace, too. If the internet is a small world, then publishing is about the size of that shoebox you called a freshman dorm room. The things you say will get back to the people you say them about.

But, you can use that to your advantage, because a reputation for being pleasant to work with will precede you, too. You’ll find that other people will usually assume you to be professional and easy to work with unless you show them otherwise. So take a deep breath, and let it out. Relax. Take a confident, friendly, professional tone. Don’t try too hard, or boast, or get defensive, or insult us, or try to dazzle us, or threaten us, or bribe us, or guilt us. Let your genuine pride in your work shine through, and let your writing speak for itself.

Find your voice, and have faith in it. Many of the queries that I reject—the ones that have followed directions—aren’t the stuff of editors’ nightmares. They’re just unremarkable. They’re a bullet-point list of “and then this happened” instead of an engaging, immersive story with a strong voice and a narrative flow. If you don’t give me a reason to get invested in the characters, none of the things that happen to them will matter to me. Remember, we editors want to be immersed, just like readers do. But it can’t happen if all you give us is a puddle.

If you want to show us that you are an amazing person with a fantastic story to tell, you have to believe it first! Strike a professional tone in your query, stick to the requested information, and proofread your entire submission (including your cover letter!). Doing these few little things will show that you’re taking this seriously. Everyone gets nervous and makes a little mistake or two, but showing inattentiveness in your query is like showing up to a job interview without ironing your shirt. Attention to polish can really show a long way to show that you care.

Oh, and always include your contact information (on your cover letter, in your attachment, in the body of your email), so that when we are wowed, we can get in touch with you!

- Gabrielle Harbowy

Gabrielle is a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association. She edits for authors like Philippa Ballantine (Geist, Ace Books 2010), publishers including Pyr Books, and is a staff proofreader for Lambda Literary. In addition to her independent editing work, she is also an Associate Publisher at Dragon Moon Press.

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